The untold stories from Ben Roethlisberger’s frustrating year without football

There is a hunting camp on the shore of the Salmon River in the mountains of central Idaho, burrowed between soaring pines and blanketed with an unshakable sense of isolation. The cabin has no Wi-Fi, no TV and no cell reception. It’s accessible only by a bumpy, 45-minute jet boat ride. It is, even in the estimation of Idahoan outdoorsman Corky Federico, “total wilderness.”

This is where Ben Roethlisberger found himself for four days this spring, on a bear hunt quarterbacked by Merril Hoge, the former Steelers running back and longtime TV analyst. Hoge had rounded out the hunting party with Federico — his old Idaho State teammate — and Steelers receiver James Washington. Out there, trekking through the mountains, the transport options are mules or walking. The 38-year-old Roethlisberger hiked the hills on foot.

“People were questioning whether he was in shape,” Hoge said, with a laugh, last week. “I’ll tell you this. If you go to Salmon, Idaho, or Google that area, that’s like British Columbia, man. It’s straight up and straight down.”

When four football guys spend four days together without technology, roaming the wilderness by day and then crowding into a small cabin at night, the topic of conversation turns often — and unsurprisingly — to football. Roethlisberger was working his way back from the elbow surgery that had ended his season in Week 2 last year. He and Washington were enthusiastic about the Steelers season ahead. “But what’s funny,” Federico remembered, “is (Roethlisberger) wanted to talk about my career with Merril in college more than anything.” So the four of them sat in the camp as the river rushed past, and they reminisced.

Roethlisberger had mostly stayed out of the public eye since the injury. There, in the isolation of Idaho, his hunting buddy Hoge had a glimpse into the quarterback’s comeback. Their trip is one snapshot in this collection of stories from Roethlisberger’s year without football. Those close to him describe a reenergized Roethlisberger. As Roethlisberger begins his 17th season with the Steelers, says his agent, Ryan Tollner, “He sounds like a rookie again.”

In Idaho, Roethlisberger looked the part of a rugged mountaineer. He wore flannel and a trucker hat, and he had the bushy beard he had promised not to shave until he threw an NFL pass. He wasn’t there yet. But he was close.

“I didn’t even have to ask him,” Hoge said. “I could tell when I talked to him: Somebody’s coming back with a passion. He was excited. He felt good. I could tell in his voice. I said, oh, that’s not good for the rest of the league.

“But it’s good for the Steelers.”

Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, Tollner sat forward in his seat in a Heinz Field suite and trained his binoculars on Roethlisberger.

Something was wrong. As the clock ticked toward halftime in a tied game against the Seahawks, the Steelers had sailed into Seattle territory. Yet each pass play was ending with Roethlisberger holding his right elbow. Tollner knew the elbow had been bugging Roethlisberger, but no one suspected a serious injury. Roethlisberger had experienced elbow twinges as far back as his rookie season, stemming from a tiny tear in a flexor tendon. These, however, were no twinges. When Roethlisberger sent a deep ball to JuJu Smith-Schuster in the end zone, it felt, he’d later say, “like something had literally ripped off the bone.”

“I’ve seen every pass he’s thrown in his career,” Tollner said, “and so I could see when the ball came out of his hand that it wasn’t right.”

Roethlisberger takes immense pride in playing through pain. He thinks he has superhuman recovery, his agent joked. Once, the night before a game about five years ago, Roethlisberger’s ankle was black and blue — “the most disgusting ankle I’ve ever seen,” Tollner said — and his foot looked frostbitten. When Tollner told Roethlisberger there was no way he’d play, Roethlisberger just smiled. He played. Another time, after Vontaze Burfict sacked Roethlisberger and injured his right shoulder in the AFC wild-card game, Roethlisberger couldn’t lift his arm above his head. Tollner met him outside the locker room and said, “Don’t go back in the game.” Roethlisberger smiled again.

“I could see Ben on the sideline with a jacket on,” Tollner recalled, “and he’s getting closer and closer to (Steelers head coach Mike) Tomlin, trying to plead his case to get in the game. And then the next series he throws the jacket off, does one little double-leg jump, and I’m like, Oh no. Here we go.”

This elbow injury was different.

From the suite, Tollner tried to decipher the body language as Roethlisberger spoke with Dr. James Bradley, the team’s head orthopedic surgeon, on the Steelers sideline. Dr. Bradley was shaking his head. He wouldn’t let Roethlisberger return to the game until he knew what was going on with the elbow. The answer came the following day. Roethlisberger had torn three flexor tendons. Playing through pain this time would only worsen the damage.

“This wasn’t some speculation as to how long it might take, or should we or shouldn’t we have surgery,” Tollner said. “It was very simple. Have surgery if you ever want to play again. Or don’t have surgery and ride off into the sunset.”

Roethlisberger had considered retiring before. In 2017, when he was 35, Roethlisberger committed to playing only one more season, citing his age, health and a desire to spend more time at home with his wife, Ashley, and their children, Benjamin, Baylee and Bodie. Teammates say Roethlisberger was serious about it then. And now, staring down a major surgery and months of rehab, it would be easy to forgive a two-time Super Bowl champion and future Hall of Famer for concluding this was the perfect time to hang up his cleats.

For years, Tollner had encouraged the Roethlisbergers to document their home life, away from football, so that one day they could share a slice of their story with Steelers fans. Ben and Ashley never bit. They are private people.

The injury, though, changed their minds. They started shooting short videos on their iPhones, unsure what would come of them. The end result was “Bigger Than Ben,” a four-part documentary series chronicling Roethlisberger’s surgery and rehab. In it, Ashley said she left the retirement decision in her husband’s hands. If he wanted to start a new chapter, she would too.

See also  Download File Vector Logo BlackPink

“He listened,” Ashley says in the documentary. “You could tell he really took it to heart and thought. He said, ‘Thank you, but I don’t feel done. I’m not done.’”

The bond between a quarterback and his offensive linemen is sacred. They are paid to protect him, and he pays to keep them happy with dinners, watches and rounds of golf. (Roethlisberger once told the story of taking the linemen to his country club. Some showed up wearing tank tops or T-shirts and sandals. Willie Colon took a putter to the first tee.) Roethlisberger also has the Steelers linemen over to his Sewickley home a few times each year for cookouts.

It’s no secret that the Steelers offensive line is aging. At the start of the 2019 season, guard Ramon Foster was the only lineman left from the last Steelers team to reach the Super Bowl — a six-point loss to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV. For years now, Roethlisberger has told his linemen that he wants to win them a ring. They’re hungry for that, too. They have had Roethlisberger’s back and his blindside. But they couldn’t protect him from a non-contact arm injury.

“Ben getting hurt is one of those things where, like, you look at him like Superman,” Foster said. “He’s going to come out of the tunnel with his cape on and just save the day.”

Roethlisberger didn’t come out of the tunnel. Backup Mason Rudolph took over in the second half of the Seahawks game. Roethlisberger never returned. A week later, the day before surgery, he watched anxiously from a Los Angeles hotel room as the Steelers lost a late lead against San Francisco and fell to 0-3.

“It’s the first time I can remember in a long time (where I was) watching a game my guys were playing,” Roethlisberger said in the documentary. “It was nerve-wracking. I was up and down on the couch. I was yelling at the TV.”

For the rest of the season, Roethlisberger was relegated to a support role, watching from the sideline with his right arm encased. While the Steelers’ spectacular defense kept the season alive, injuries and ineffective quarterback play saw the team’s playoff chances slip down the stretch. Roethlisberger wasn’t putting a cape to save the day this time. He could hardly move his arm.

“It was a really hard season for him,” Tollner said. “These were Ben’s guys out there fighting, and it was killing him to not be out there with him.”

Though the Steelers missed the playoff for the second consecutive year, Foster saw something late in the season that inspired hope. Roethlisberger walked into the team’s practice facility one day with his older son by his side. It was plain as day. Roethlisberger had his mojo back. That, Foster said, was the day he was convinced Roethlisberger would be back — and even better — in 2020.

“You know that sneaky grin look you give somebody when you know something good is coming?” Foster said. “That’s what I saw from Ben.”

If there exists such a thing as a silver lining to be drawn from elbow surgery on the throwing arm of a quarterback in the back nine of his career, it is this:

“When the doctors gave him the glimmer of hope that (he) may have had some diseased tendon in there that (he’d been) playing with,” Tollner said, “Ben started to formulate in his mind, Well, I’ve been dealing with that for a long time. So you’re telling me that if I have this surgery you can clean it up and I may better than I was before? That became the driving force.”

Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who had performed the surgery, cleared Roethlisberger to begin his throwing progression in February. Before that, Roethlisberger had been working out in his home gym with personal trainer Lorne Goldenberg and physical therapist Glenn Holland. Initially, Goldenberg said, they worked around the injury. They first focused on strengthening Roethlisberger’s legs and core, then his upper body to ensure his shoulder was ready for throws.

Early signs were encouraging. Goldenberg was methodical with his approach, and Roethlisberger slowly relearned to trust the elbow. During one of the first training sessions post-surgery, Roethlisberger told Goldenberg, in a conversation later aired in the documentary, “Everything I do, I’m just nervous with. If you talk to the doctor, he tells you, ‘If you do this, it’ll pull the suture right out of the tendon and you’re done.’ It’s not like I’m young and if this thing rips then we’ll go redo it. If this thing rips, we’re just done.”

“He was very anxious to get going,” Goldenberg said. “If he could have put it on fast-forward for six months, I’m sure he would have.”

With ElAttrache’s approval to throw, Roethlisberger met with throwing coach Adam Dedeaux, founder of quarterback training facility 3DQB, in Huntington Beach, Calif. Dedeaux began with a basic evaluation of Roethlisberger and his throwing motion. The first step was a frank conversation. Dedeaux is a throwing expert, but he’s also four years younger than Roethlisberger and has two fewer Super Bowl rings. He could help only if Roethlisberger was willing to listen to new ideas. Roethlisberger knows how to throw a football. But Dedeaux knows how some small tweaks could make Roethlisberger’s throwing motion more efficient and potentially help him avoid future injury.

“You’re only as strong as your weakest link, so part of the evaluation is understanding why the injury happened in the first place,” Dedeaux explained. “Given that this injury had bothered him over the years and eventually a non-contact (play) basically ripped it off the bone, we can point to the fact that there were some weak links that we needed to address.”

Quarterbacks don’t throw with their hands, elbows or with a flick of their wrist. They throw from the ground up. It begins with firm footing, then up through the hips, the core and then the arms. Roethlisberger worked out with Dedeaux for three days with only light throwing, trying to make minor mechanical adjustments and cement them as muscle memory. It was at Dedeaux’s facility where Roethlisberger picked up an NFL ball for the first time post-surgery.

See also  Trải Nghiệm Du Lịch Sinh Thái Thú Vị Tại Suối Thạch Lâm Khánh Hòa!

“The first throw once I had clearance, it literally felt like riding a bike,” Roethlisberger said in the documentary. “I was excited. Ashley even said, ‘I can see the smile on your face. You can try to hide it.’ And I did feel that. But it just kind of felt like I’d done it a million times.”

Roethlisberger had plans for more training sessions with Dedeaux in Huntington Beach, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced an audible. Roethlisberger would send video of him throwing back home in Pittsburgh, and Dedeaux would break down the tape and send back notes.

“We always (ask) about compelling reasons to change,” Dedeaux said. “What would drive a guy to seek new information? Or to work harder? Or to do things that maybe they haven’t done their whole career? Injury and failure tend to be the two things. In this case, I think this injury inspired (Roethlisberger) to look a little deeper and maybe make some changes.”

Dedeaux put together a detailed throwing plan — complete with drills, reps, distances and levels of intensity — and, under Goldenberg’s watch in Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger integrated Dedeaux’s feedback into a cleaner delivery. And as Roethlisberger passed checkpoints in Dedeaux’s throwing program, his path to that first post-surgery NFL pass became clearer.

There is another hunting camp, out in the woods of Ellicottville, N.Y. That’s where its owner, Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, called from last week to talk about Roethlisberger, his close friend and frequent hunting partner. Roethlisberger has been up to the camp several times over the years to see Kelly, share stories over a campfire and, if the weather is right, snowmobile.

“We’re not the 21-year-olds flying 90 miles per hour,” Kelly said, laughing. “When we snowmobile, it’s just cruising. See the hills. Have some fun.”

After Roethlisberger’s injury last September, the thought crossed Kelly’s mind that Roethlisberger might retire. Kelly said his own retirement, in 1997, was “one of the toughest decisions” he ever made. He had just suffered his fifth concussion, and he knew it was time to start thinking about the future.

In talking to Roethlisberger after the elbow injury, however, Kelly quickly became convinced that the Steelers quarterback was not ready to call it quits.

“I believe he has a lot left in his tank, and God has prepared him for what he’s going through,” Kelly said. “He’s going to come back bigger, better and stronger. If he’s the Ben I’ve known for many years, he’ll be ready.”

Kelly was 36 when he retired. Two weeks later, he and his wife had their second child, a boy they named Hunter. Hunter died of Krabbe disease, a severe neurological condition, at the age of 8 in 2005. When Roethlisberger called Kelly 11 years later to tell him about the birth of their second son, Bodie, he asked Kelly for permission to give the newborn the middle name Hunter.

“I said, ‘I’d be honored.’” Kelly recalled. “That was cool.”

Kelly and Roethlisberger typically go on an annual trip together, but they haven’t seen each other this year. Kelly has had cancer three times, and his immune system is weakened. The two of them talk and text regularly. The other day, Kelly texted Roethlisberger about going out to dinner together when the Steelers play the Bills in Week 14. It’ll be the middle of December in Buffalo, Kelly said, but they’ll hold off on snowmobiling until the offseason.

It was taco night at the Roethlisberger house.

Spencer Te’o was choosing his toppings and words carefully. Why, he wanted to know, had Roethlisberger just picked him to be executive producer of … whatever it was they were going to do with all of this iPhone footage. Te’o is not a documentary producer. Or he was not, anyway, until that moment. Te’o is a guitarist and rapper for the electro-pop worship band Red Letter Hymnal, a self-taught techie, and, as it relates to the Roethlisbergers, a friend from church.

A couple of years ago, Te’o performed a set at Christ Church at Grove Farm in Sewickley that included live music, improv comedy and a sermon. The Roethlisbergers approached afterward. “They just saw something in me,” Te’o said. Now, when Te’o writes music, the Roethlisbergers are the first to hear it.

They remain close with Te’o and his wife, Mackenzie, and since Te’o had seen the whole comeback story as it happened, Roethlisberger thought he’d be the perfect person to take the footage and turn it into something. So, this spring, he asked Te’o about it. Te’o — a self-described “punk kid from Tampa” with a refreshing, retro vocabulary — recalls now that the conversation went like this: “Ben was like, ‘Yeah, dude. If you’d be down to produce it, that would be dope.’” That the Roethlisbergers would trust him with that, Te’o said, was “super rad.”

“That’s just who they are, man,” he said.

Now that the tacos were on the table, though, Te’o asked Roethlisberger, whom he twice referred to as “the big homie” in an interview for this story, why he had gone with a self-taught music and video producer rather than pitching inside access to his comeback to a cable network or streaming platform. Roethlisberger, Tollner said, had decided he didn’t want it to be a big production. He wanted it to feel organic and genuine, and be free to watch.

“I think Ben felt like if people can be in some way inspired by the adversity that I’m facing and how I’m choosing to approach it, that’d be great,” Tollner said. “Or they can simply be amused by what my life really looks like. That’s great.”

With that, Te’o took the wheel. The Roethlisbergers scrolled through the hundreds of videos on their phones and started AirDropping them to Te’o.

Te’o headed home that night with eight months of footage on his laptop. He combed through it later and started to piece together the fragments. The day of the surgery. The first rehab session. The frustrated thoughts as the season fell apart. The New Year’s Eve party in the Roethlisberger’s basement. The 38th birthday party at a ski resort. The daddy-daughter dance Roethlisberger staged at home when the school dance was canceled. The first time Roethlisberger rode on horseback after surgery. (That one did not make the final edit.)

See also  Suspect in custody in killings of 3 homeless men in Los Angeles

Soon enough, Te’o had the initial framework set for “Bigger Than Ben,” and he knew the biggest moment of Roethlisberger’s rehab was dead ahead.

Carlos Norman has had a barbershop in Sewickley since he was 19. He gave Lynn Swann’s kids their first haircuts, and he cut Swann’s hair until he lost most of it. Norman has trimmed Brett Keisel’s mighty beard, too. So when Roethlisberger came into Norman’s Cuttin’ Edge Barber Shop for the first time a few years ago, he wasn’t the first famous Steeler to sit in that chair.

“It made it a little easier for me not to be a nervous wreck,” Norman said.

Roethlisberger phoned Norman in March and explained that he had sworn not to cut his hair or shave his beard until he threw his first NFL pass since surgery. When that day finally arrived, Roethlisberger said, he’d ask Norman for a trim.

Norman’s phone rang again in early May.

“I think tomorrow’s the day,” Roethlisberger said.

“I got you,” Norman replied.

The next morning, Roethlisberger met Smith-Schuster, James Conner and Ryan Switzer at Quaker Valley High School in Leetsdale, Pa., and they stepped onto the turf field for their first workout together since Roethlisberger’s injury. Te’o and videographer Sean Gallagher — one of Conner’s closest friends — were there to catch it all on camera.

The next stop was the barbershop. Norman’s shop was closed for regular business, per Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 regulations, and Roethlisberger’s visit would later get Norman in hot water, since salons and barbershops had been ordered closed. Norman’s lawyer argued that it was a personal favor for a friend, as no money had been exchanged. But Norman wasn’t thinking about the backlash at the time. He was trying to decide how best to tame the thicket on Roethlisberger’s face and scale back his shaggy hair.

“It was exciting for me,” Norman said, “but also stressful.”

Afterward, Te’o was going through the footage and had an idea. The song “Coming in Hot” by Andy Mineo and Lecrae had been stuck in his head for a while. “So Te’o set that as the soundtrack to a short clip and spliced together bursts of Roethlisberger’s workout and haircut. It ended with a shot of Smith-Schuster pointing at the camera, grinning and saying, “He’s baaaaack!”

Te’o texted the video to Roethlisberger. He didn’t expect anyone else to see the clip until “Bigger Than Ben” was released a few months later. Roethlisberger liked it. He sent it to Erin Cox, who runs his website and social media accounts. And at 12:58 p.m. on a Monday in the middle of May, Steelers fans got their first look at Roethlisberger and his repaired right arm in action.

Feels good to be back out there with my guys! @TeamJuJu @JamesConner_ @Switz

— (@_BigBen7) May 18, 2020

Last week, Roethlisberger told reporters he had recently crossed the Veterans Bridge in Pittsburgh and found himself thinking, Man, I’m actually nervous for this season. He said he’d be “shaking like a leaf” by the time a Monday night kickoff against the Giants arrived. His agent added later, “He’s like a little kid right now that’s been granted the opportunity to play in the NFL.”

It’s an easy line to sell with sincerity as Roethlisberger returns, and it seems to be the exact sentiment Steelers fans crave. But the true test begins now.

When Foster, the trusted left guard, retired in March, one of the first phone calls that came through was from Roethlisberger. He thanked Foster and said he’d miss the big man. And before he hung up, Roethlisberger told Foster once more: I really wanted to win you a ring. Roethlisberger is aware he is down to his last few shots. The Steelers have the pieces to be dangerous this season, but how far they’ll go hinges on Roethlisberger staying healthy and productive. Baltimore and Kansas City are the betting favorites to win the Super Bowl.

“Knowing Ben,” Foster said, “he’s trying to rain down on that parade.”

When asked last week whether he felt he could play into his 40s, Roethlisberger joked, “I’m not close to 40 yet, so please don’t say that again.”

It is, of course, a legitimate question. Roethlisberger will turn 40 on March 2, 2022, the same month his current contract with the Steelers is set to expire. Steelers president Art Rooney II told The Athletic’s Ed Bouchette earlier this month that the Steelers are open to extending Roethlisberger beyond next season — and into his 40s — if all goes well this fall.

While Roethlisberger is focused on this season, Tollner said the other day, continuing to play beyond this contract is a conversation they’ve already had.

“We’ve talked about it quite a bit,” Tollner said. “I don’t think that (Roethlisberger) is actively thinking about that or that he’s got some sort of long-term plan in mind, but I think that his love for the game, his love for the Steelers, his love for his teammates and the fans — and his feeling that this is where he’s meant to be, that this is his purpose — I think it’s as strong as ever.”

For now, Roethlisberger and the Steelers will wait and see. The signs so far are good. Roethlisberger says his arm feels alive, healthier than it has been for many years, and he believes he can play as well as ever before. The proof, as always, will be played out on the field. Tollner said Roethlisberger’s goal this season is not to come back and be respectable. There’s no time for that.

“He’s big-game hunting,” the agent said. “He just wants to win rings.”

(Top photo: Tom Puskar / Associated Press)

Comments are closed.
Ky Phu,Nho Quan,Ninh Binh, Viet Nam Country
+84.229 6333 111


[formidable id=8 title=true description=true]
Trang An Golf and Resort